A Lifebelt for ailing Hayling Ferry

Saturday 3rd November 2018

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There’s a handy passenger ferry which connects the south western tip of Hayling Island with the south eastern tip of Portsea Island across Langstone Harbour. It only takes a couple of minutes to cross and saves Hayling’s residents a 12 mile detour via Havant and Cosham to reach the commercial centre of Portsmouth and Southsea. But as I found when I last made the crossing in August 2017, it’s not particularly convenient as both landing stages are isolated with the nearest bus routes turning a fair way short necessitating a two mile walk from the closest bus stop on Hayling Island and about a mile on Portsea before you find a bus stop where buses stop. No wonder very few people use the ferry and it struggles to stay in business.

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Bus turning circles almost adjacent to both landing stages give the clue that once upon a time buses joined up with the ferry to connect the communities, and now, thanks to £20,000 funding from Havant Borough Council’s Community Infrastructure Levy, buses are once again providing connections for a six month trial.

It’s taken a long time to bring this renewed bus/ferry integrated travel option to fruition; and sadly before you know it, it’ll all be over again. I wish I could report otherwise, but after giving the trial service a whirl yesterday afternoon, I’m afraid it’s a ‘No’ from me for going through to the next round.

You can’t fault the commitment and effort made by all the parties involved who’ve endured a long and painful struggle to try and join up the bus and ferry dots on the map.

Not surprisingly Stagecoach rebuffed suggestions their circular routes 30/31 connecting Hayling Island with Havant four times an hour should divert off route for the two mile hike to the western landing stage; after all, it would destroy the routes’ even frequency and economics, while First Bus were naturally reluctant to stretch routes 15/16 eastwards beyond their Fort Cumberland terminus in Eastney with the potential to make the timetable unworkable for no appreciable gain in passengers.

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Stagecoach’s circular routes 30/31 run every 15 minutes from Havant (twice an hour each way)
First Bus route 15 runs hourly and 16 less often from the Hard to Eastney Fort Cumberland

After months of endless discussions, it was finally Havant Borough Council’s £20,000 sweetener to fund a community bus shuttling around Hayling Island providing a link to the ferry every hour together with Langstone Harbour’s halving the harbour fees paid by the ferry (and a levy on each passenger) that finally clinched a deal amid much congratulatory appreciation from everyone involved for a bright new future.

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The Portsmouth News positive headline

In the event, the aspiration for an hourly community bus didn’t quite work out and instead Portsmouth City Coaches (a new name for the old established Emsworth & District bus company) are running just a Monday to Friday peak hour only circular route (numbered, for nostalgia reasons, 149) aimed at commuters.

Route 149 harks back to the long established open-top route operated by Southdown

Plaudits to First Bus though; they’ve hacked the western end of route 15 between the Hard Interchange (with its adjacent Gunwharf Quays shopping outlets) and the city centre and instead gambled on an extension of the route at the eastern end to the ferry’s landing stage; and what’s more this runs hourly throughout a Monday to Friday day (well, except for a 1600 departure) providing more ferry connectional opportunities – it’s a shame their online map has only been updated at the western end though, leaving the ferry still looking isolated at the eastern end!

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First Bus’s online map has deleted the western end of route 15 to The Hard but not added the all important new eastern extension to the Ferry landing stage.

That map goof aside, it was good to see an abundance of posters and announcements around the ferry landing stages and onboard the ferry itself as well as the bus on route 149. Users of the ferry can’t possibly be unaware something new is on offer. I’m not sure though whether the all important non-users will be similarly briefed – whether the £20,000 has stretched to an attractive house-to-house leaflet drop on Hayling, for example.

At the top of the Eastney landing stage
At the bottom of the Eastney landing stage
On board the ferry
At the Hayling Island turning circle bus shelter
On board the 149 bus
Aside from ferry times only First Bus 15 times on display on the Eastney side (no 149) …
…. and then not particularly well presented!

This six month trial has been hyped as a “use it or lose it” opportunity, so well done to everyone involved for raising the profile and getting the local media on board too. But as always with these things, the devil is in the detail. Has anyone worked out what is actually on offer to tempt passengers to travel aside from a logical looking straight line on a map surpassing a non sensical inland detour? Regretfully it would seem not.

Imagine I fit the perfect target market of a commuter living on Hayling Island with a job in the centre of Portsmouth and want to use the new ‘Ferry Bus Connections’.

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The options are to catch the 0625, 0725 or 0825 route 149 from Eastoke Corner which will see me arrive in Portsmouth via the Ferry and route 15 an hour later at 0727, 0827 or 0927.

An overall 62 minute journey seems an awfully long time for a three minute ferry crossing. And bizarrely for a scheme that’s meant to save journey time, it doesn’t. If instead, I caught the 0635, 0715 or 0800 Stagecoach route 30 from nearby Mengham Corner on Hayling Island to Havant and hopped on the Coastliner bus to Portsmouth I’d arrive, in the first two examples at 0731 and 0811 – in just 56 minutes, being 6 minutes quicker than the new much heralded direct route. (The 0800 journey arrives 0912 – due to a longer connection in Havant so does take 10 minutes longer). Similar comparisons apply for the afternoon three journey options involving the 149.

What’s more I could get one of Stagecoach’s Mega or Dayrider tickets costing just £6.90 for a day or £21 for 7 days (m-ticket prices). Compare that to the non-integrated ticket option via the ferry – which sets me back £2 both ways on route 149; £5.50 for a day return on the ferry and £3 both ways on the 15, making for an eye-watering £15.50 for a day’s travel. A modest saving can be had on the ferry by buying a 10 trip ticket for £25 (effectively a working week’s travel, or £48 for 20 trips) and it may be there’s a slight discount on the 15 with a return ticket (this being First Bus and as it’s a Saturday, when I’m writing this, it’s impossible to find out); but I reckon it’ll be no more than a £1 saving making for a total bus and ferry five day price coming in at a whopping £70 which doesn’t quite entice me compared to Stagecoach’s £21, especially when it could be quicker too.

There is, of course, an even quicker journey option. Havant’s rail station is just a convenient three or four minute walk from the bus station and there just happen to be trains departing to Portsmouth & Southsea ten minutes after the Stagecoach route 30 arrives into Havant bus station – how good is that, making for an overall journey time of 41 minutes (from the 0635 bus); 50 minutes (from the 0715 bus) and 49 minutes (from the 0800 bus). Not only is this the quickest option, but the ticket prices are cheaper than the new bus and ferry option too – thanks to the wonderful PlusBus which happens to cover Hayling Island for either just £2.90 for a day or £10 for a week. Adding those prices to the Havant to Portsmouth & Southsea rail return of £5.10 for a day and £22.80 for a week gives integrated travel for £8 for a day or £32.80 for a week – less than half the bus/ferry option and a third quicker too!

And that, is why the six month trial; notwithstanding the £20,000 funding boost, is doomed to fail. Why would anyone choose to pay more for a longer journey?

I write this with a heavy heart, as I’d like nothing better than to see those lovely turning circles back in action permanently, so if, like me, you’re a fan of such manoeuvres – hurry down to Hayling Island over the next five months, while the trial lasts. Although sadly with darker mornings and late afternoons the prospects of seeing much in the light are not good.

The lovely turning circle on the Eastley side in action….
….while over on Hayling Island…..
….the 149 waits patiently for customers.

It’s a shame the Community Infrastructure Levy couldn’t have stretched further to fund an hourly 149 bus all day, as originally intended, and much tighter connectional times at the landing stages with good communications between bus and ferry (in case of delays) to try and shorten overall journey times. With the low numbers travelling, it might also have been worth making the service attractively cheap (the revenue at risk must be minimal), or even completely free for the six month trial. That just might have generated some serious interest which could have been nurtured to become sustainable.

What I saw yesterday is a very good try at reviving things but sadly it’s a definite ‘No’.

Roger French 3rd November 2018

Cambridge Busway confusion

Monday 29th October

There’s something not quite right on the Cambridge Busway.

That’s apart from a driver shortage impacting the reliability of Stagecoach services.

I arrived at the Cambridge Station stop this morning for the 11.47 Route D which uses the Busway towards St Ives as part of a combined 15 minute frequency with Route A as shown on the timetable on the Stagecoach website.

Route D is on the far right of the frequency block

Except the bus stop ‘real time sign’ showed a Route D departure at 11.51 (not 11.47) while the departure list in the shelter showed an 11.51 departure as Route A (not D) and the sign on the shelter showed Routes A and C (but no D) stop there even though C doesn’t.

Timetable listing favours Route A (no D) as well as an R

The bus shelter favours there being a Route A and C

Confused? I was. And even more so when I then spotted a timetable for Route A on the shelter showing only an hourly service.

Then the insecurity set in when 11.47 (and 11.51) came and went; the ‘real time display’ disappeared; and no bus had appeared.

Next the sign showed a Route A departing at 12.02 which at least married up with one of the timetable displays in the shelter and the website, so things were looking up.

Except 12.02 came and went, the display disappeared and still no bus.

Then we had a departure showing a Route A in ’13 mins’ indicating there’s a good chance this bus is actually coming (the one due at 12.17) and my assumption the previous displays had defaulted to timetabled scheduled time as no ‘real’ information had been received by the system. As both departures were obviously cancelled this is a particularly unsatisfactory way to communicate what is already an unsatisfactory situation! Open Data this is not.

No update information had been tweeted by Stagecoach East so at 12.06 I tweeted them to find out what was happening as my day’s travel plans were rapidly meaning Plan A bring aborted as well as the backstop Plan B and the backstop to the backstop Plan C.

As there wasn’t the courtesy of a reply and I detected understandable consternation among waiting passengers as we all watched frequent departures on smart Park & Ride buses from the same stop which only added to our frustrating wait, I tried another tweet at 12.17 as that departure wasn’t in sight.

in the event a rather full single deck finally arrived at 12.21 (the previous departure – if it ran – would have been at 11.32) and shortly after that Stagecoach East enquired if the bus had arrived.

As someone astutely observed; Twitter is supposed to work the other way around with bus companies providing the answers rather than asking the questions.

A couple of people kindly tweeted me letting me know about a useful app I could download showing the location of both Stagecoach and Whippet buses around Cambridge but as a non frequent visitor to the city there’s a limit to how many apps I want on my phone. I had been using the Stagecoach app too; but like the real time sign, it had defaulted to showing scheduled time for the cancelled buses on the ‘nearby buses’ screen which is particularly useless – that’s when I could get a good enough signal …..

Not a particularly helpful app when phone signal is dodgy

Later in the day I arrived at Huntingdon station and was puzzled to see the same phenomenon with discrepancies between timetables on display there too.

The large display on the shelter shows departures on Route B to Cambridge at 01 and 31 minutes past the hour …..

while a smaller display on the bus stop shows departures at 08 and 38.

The real time display seemed to be agreeing with 01 and 31 which is also reaffirmed by the website.

I’m sure all of this can be explained by different publication dates and out of date information not being taken down but it does highlight how confusing it can be for passengers and emphasises the challenge ahead with grand plans for Open Data …. as well as confirmation that driver shortages are back with us again in some parts of the country (maybe pinch a driver off the frequent Park & Ride to avoid two consecutive buses on the A/D being cancelled?).

Displays showing different commencing dates in Cambridge may be a factor

Roger French 29th October 2018

I just snapped!

Wednesday 17th October 2018

‘Snap is premium inter-city travel, on demand, using the UK’s best independent coach companies. All for pocket money prices. Snap was founded in 2016 by Thomas Ableman, former Commercial Director of Chiltern Railways and Product Director of National Express and has carried over 100,000 people since launch, with outstanding customer feedback (9/10 on line reviews are 5-star).’

That’s what the Company blurb says, so I thought it was high time I gave this 5-Star coach experience a try.

I’d been keeping a curious eye on Snap’s website for much of last year but entering London and Brighton as my ‘on demand’ preferred travel origin/destination it would always come back saying nothing was going my way.

I knew Nottingham to London was Snap’s test bed route so decided to give that a go but I could only ever find inconvenient (for me) afternoon/evening departures northbound from London.

The website implies I can be matched with other passengers going my way, but my experiences indicated it was more whether my travel would fit in with confirmed journeys already planned to run.

Snap was in the trade press a few weeks ago promoting a deal with Oxford Bus to sell tickets on that Company’s London service as well as news of a service expansion to Bristol where coincidentally the Young Bus Managers Conference was being held on 17/18 October so it proved an ideal opportunity to give Snap a go. (I know I’m not young and no longer a bus manager, but they let me attend conferences as a grand sounding ‘Patron’).

This time Snap’s website had been updated to include a drop down menu in the From and To fields confirming all the available options which also now include Birmingham, Cardiff, Leicester and Worcester and even including journeys between them and not via London.

You can choose any convenient time to travel but I’ve found the algorithm always comes back offering trips st times where booked coaches are already confirmed as running. No doubt if I was a group booking there’d be flexibility.

Prices are attractively cheap for most journeys with higher fares applying on obviously busier journeys as bookings increase. My Bristol fare departing London at 0900 was quoted at £5 when I booked last Wednesday … until I saw an offer of ‘first trip free’ so signed up for the promo code and saved myself a fiver.

There are a number of pick up/set down options available – my Bristol coach offered St Pancras International or Baker Street from London with four drop off points near Bristol city centre.

The adventure began this morning at St Pancras as I hadn’t even realised there are six coach bays underneath the platforms accessed via the corridor between the Left Luggage and Toilets.

It’s not the most salubrious waiting area but with a text letting you know your driver is on the way and a link to a vehicle tracking website, you could hang around in the station’s extensive shopping and refreshment area until just before departure time – although you’re asked to be there ten minutes before departure.

Ominously our coach was still at Southwark Bridge at 0902 with predicted arrival erroneously still showing 0900 at St Pancras.

In the event this morning’s boarding experience was anything but 5-Star as our driver didn’t arrive until 0935. Had it not been possible to track the coach struggling through London’s morning peak hour traffic such a long wait would have been very disconcerting.

By 0913 Robin had reached City Thameslink but no change on the 0900 prediction.
At 0935 Robin arrived at the security guarded entrance to the departure bays.

All eight of us boarded promptly being ticked off on the drivers smartphone screen listing and we were away at 0939.

Our 2017 vintage Scania 33 seater coach provided by Anderson Travel was certainly 5-Star. It had a real wow factor as you boarded coming complete with leather seats; tables for four; a midship double galley with ovens, microwave, drinks facility and the usual usb sockets and Wi-fi.

It drove smoothly and as we crawled along the Euston and Marylebone Roads towards Baker Street (where we picked up four more passengers) I could tell this was going to be an impressive ride quality.

Our driver apologised for the late arrival and after Baker Street made an explanatory announcement that ‘it had been one of those mornings: problems with the traffic, problems with the coach and problems with the phone’. Still, I think we were all pleased to be on our way at last and we were reassured a revised anticipated arrival time in Bristol of midday was on the cards (rather than the originally scheduled 1131).

So, as instructed, I sat back, relaxed and thoroughly enjoyed the ride down to Bristol where we pulled up in the city centre at Rupert Street at 1219 – 48 minutes late.

In the event not only did I have a completely free and luxurious ride (the seat was ten times more comfortable than a Class 800 train) but I arrived much quicker than had I gone to Paddington this morning as problems with overhead wires meant no trains could run until repairs were completed around lunchtime.

Snap is an interesting idea. Thomas Ableman rightly describes the company as a Sales and Marketing platform. It aims to excel at getting customers and allows operating companies to concentrate on what he says they do best – operating coaches. As befits the way of the ride sharing world, passengers are asked to rate their journey between 1 and 5 immediately on completion by text and this helps Snap ensure they contract only the best operators.

Thomas points out that compared to the downturn in bus travel and the more recent downward trends in train passengers, inter-city express coach travel is on the up – quoting both National Express and Megabus enjoying growth. To successfully join in this growth, Snap’s challenge must surely be raising awareness that they exist. Unlike the established players, Snap doesn’t have high visibility branded coaches plying the motorways and into town and city centres.

My Anderson Travel coach had a small Snap vinyl near the front on both sides but it only acted as reassurance to those of us boarding than being anything meaningful to anyone else.

But, as Snap’s overhead are a tiny fraction of National Express and Megabus it doesn’t really matter if the company grows at a fairly slow pace from one travel market to another as demand increases from word of mouth and use of low cost social media and it continues to match demand and supply with dynamic pricing.

For non-time critical passengers on tight budgets who happen to be travelling where Snap have a platform, it’s an irresistible proposition. Luxury travel, smooth ride and excellent bespoke reassuring communications.

It’ll be interesting to see where Snap goes next. I’ll happily give it another go if a destination and departure time look convenient – mainly for the novelty of such luxury road travel at a ridiculously cheap price – so I hope Snap’s venture capital investors are equally happy too. I’m told firmly that they are.

Roger French 17th October 2018

I went to Thorpe Park by bus

Tuesday 16th October 2018

No, not the infamous leisure park in Surrey, that’s so last decade; I’m talking Thorpe Park as in ‘a flagship scheme for the Northern Powerhouse Agenda’ no less (well that’s what their brochure reckons).

And in case you didn’t know, Thorpe Park ‘sits in the city regions most significant growth area and will bring even greater diversity to the Leeds offer to the local and national business community’. What’s more the developers promise ‘public realm to engage and enjoy’.

And it’s in the news because Thorpe Park’s retail and leisure quarter called The Springs opened last weekend attracting the usual motoring addicted mega crowds of shoppers to suss out what’s on offer. As I was in the area it was too good an opportunity to miss so I tried out First Leeds’ brand new limited stop X26 bus route which also started last weekend linking Leeds city centre with Thorpe Park.

Where exactly is this flagship scheme you might well be wondering? Thorpe Park Leeds sits on the eastern edge of the city in the gap before you cross the extreme northern end of the M1 and arrive in neighbouring Garforth.

Here’s a site map from the Developers’ website showing the scale of what’s planned which as well as all the futuristic office space, retail, leisure and parkland will eventually include 7,000 new homes and in 2021 even a new train station, East Leeds Parkway. So it’s good to see First Leeds getting in before a home has been built with its new X26.

The usual retail suspects can be found at The Springs … Next and T.K.Max occupy the ‘bookends’ with Boots, a huge M&S Simply Food (no clothes), all the Arcadia Group brands (Top This and Top That), H&M and, inevitably, eateries including Nandos as well as other promised food offerings. An Odeon cinema opens next year and obviously as it’s 2018, a plush gym is included in the scheme.

But ominously there are plenty of vacant units which have no current takers; there’s a plethora of ‘to rent signs’ down the spine mall walkway which wouldn’t look out of place in a run down suburban High Street.

It seems paradoxical at a time of doom and gloom on the future of retail in the High Street due to the growth of online shopping we’re also seeing massive developments such as The Springs following on, in Leeds case, the opening of a huge new John Lewis handily next to the bus station (but with a massive car park attached to boot), a redeveloped Trinity Leeds central shopping mall and the longer established White Rose Centre just to the south west being just a short bus ride from the city centre.

This multi storey car park abuts the new John Lewis right next to Leeds City Bus Station.
The White Rose Centre offers all the usual retail names on the south west side of the city.
Just one example of the ‘premium office space’ aplenty at Thorpe Park with adjacent car parking

And so to the X26.

Full marks to First Bus for investing in an incredibly impressive start-up service running from 0525 to midnight seven days a week, albeit with a slightly later 0745 start on Sundays. Commendably a 15 minute frequency applies throughout the day with half hourly evenings running seven days a week. Running time is 38 minutes meaning a commitment of six buses to run the service. That really is excellent provision bearing in mind there’s nothing particularly special about the retail offer at The Springs. I’m thinking there must be some helpful Section 106 payments to pump prime such early days generous bus provision and all to the good if so.

Even better First Bus have launched the second in their high profile colour coded route branding for Leeds with a fleet of attractive new buses for the X26. A smart yellow front adds to the pleasing appearance of the green livery, and marketing inside the buses indicates more routes will follow including the 5, 11, 19/19A, 40, 56 and a new X27 from December.

It’s all very impressive and encouraging and therefore every reason to shout about it from the rooftops. But I struggled to find anything out about the X26. The timetable is online but you have to know about it to look it up. If you don’t know about it, you won’t know about it from looking online. There’s nothing under Service Changes or Latest News for example.

The high profile buses help, that’s how I became aware something was up when I spotted one in the city centre on its first day out at the weekend. But not many potential passengers have that eye for bus detail I’m inflicted with. Knowing it was limited stop I started scouting around the city centre bus stops looking for confirmation of where I could get on board eventually settling on The Headrow and reassuringly found METRO had installed their standard departure listings on one the H2 stop, so well done them for getting that up on time.

On board, the usual First Bus new bus spec extras are evident and there’s bespoke cove panels for The Springs and other stuff.

I was initially surprised the buses aren’t guide wheel fitted so they can use the long established guided bus lanes on the Selby/York Road to and from Thorpe Park; all the more so as when I travelled on Monday roadworks were disrupting traffic big time. But I’m told there’s a problem with fitting the wheels to the bus body structure and a solution is awaited. Even so there’s doubt how effective it would be to send a limited stop service down a bus lane heavily used by frequent stopping services. Fair point.

My biggest disappointment was the timetable leaflet for the brand new X26. I couldn’t get one on board the buses so on my return to Leeds wandered over to the METRO run Travel Centre in the bus station to see if there was one there.

Casting an eye over the tidy display in route number order, no luck ..

… but as I was about to leave I spotted a makeshift display in the corner by the exit door and my luck was in – the last three copies of an X26 leaflet were there for the picking up.

It’s a classic example of why West Yorkshire Combined Authority should cease timetable production and instead hand it over to the bus companies who need to step up to the plate and produce eye catching promotional marketing leaflets that inspire and encourage bus travel just as T.K.Max, Next and the others are doing for their new stores.

The cover is bland enough but even worse, the first message on opening the leaflet are the dos and don’ts of ‘Using our bus stations safely’. The X26 doesn’t even use a bus station!

The final pair of bus stops sited down the side wall of T.K.Max, before the bus turns round at a large roundabout on the new access road disconcertingly still had ‘not in use’ notices; maybe they weren’t but at least one befuddled passenger was picked up by a bus laying over there.

The previous stops (conveniently sited at the bottom of that deserted spine mall and the yet to open Odeon and gym) had a departure listing, but oddly the bus stop flags on either side of the road both indicated incorrectly buses would be heading to Leeds.

Stop 450 29965 on one side of the road to Cross Gates and Leeds…
…and atop 450 29964 on the other side of the road also to Cross Gates and Leeds

Still, it’s a bit churlish to criticise what are obviously teething issues as even the main corporate signage for The Springs was still being finished off on Monday.

So that and the leaflet aside (which after all is an endemic structural issue on how things work in West Yorkshire which I touched on in yesterday’s blog) it’s really encouraging to see First Leeds investing in new buses and a new service and seeing their new attractive branding coming to the fore at last. I hope it achieves deserved success.

Roger French 16th October 2018

Wandering around West Yorkshire

Monday 15th October 2018

I’ve been spending a few days travelling by bus around West Yorkshire. Always a pleasure for me as, aside from brief spells with London Transport in my student days, this was where my first ‘real’ job ‘on the buses’ began (in Wakefield) over forty years ago so I’ve always found an affinity with the area. It’s a lovely part of the country too.

First a few positives.

Bus stations. Everywhere in West Yorkshire is endowed with a well appointed prominent bus station. From the huge Bradford Interchange to the small cosy affair in Ossett. Even Wetherby’s bus shelter and ‘Bus Stop A’ warrant a ‘Bus Station’ designation especially when ‘Bus Stop B’ round the corner is included.

The vast Bradford Interchange
Wetherby’s more modest bus station….
….with its Charles Holden inspired dome?

Castleford has the most recent rebuild completed a few years ago and very smart and functional it is too including all the facilities you’d expect.

Castleford- a bit drab on the outside (although it was a grey day on Friday) ….
….but nice and bright and airy inside.

Heckmondwike gained a smart ‘Bus Hub’ a few years ago: a few individual bus shelters around a rather nice piece of grass rather than a fully fledged Bus Station. Presumably a Hub because there’s no single roof span covering the waiting area. I see Morley also gained a Bus Hub earlier this year.

All the major locations have a Travel Centre with timetables (although sadly never a full set for the local area) and in some cases maps. There’s also a Customer Assistance kiosk which is a euphemism for where high-vis wearing security staff are based and who relentlessly patrol the waiting area supposedly giving reassurance to passengers and keeping out those with no thought of catching a bus but just wanting some shelter from the elements. Notwithstanding their reputation for having a serious aversion to photographers I managed to sneak out a few photos to illustrate why West Yorkshire gets Five Stars for its bus stations.

Keighley and Wakefield Bus Station Travel Centres are manned by staff from Transdev Blazefield and Arriva (respectively) rather than ‘METRO’ staff and have both had a refreshing revamp.

Bus maps. There was a rumour a while ago West Yorkshire Combined Authority (METRO) were going to jump on the ‘save money at all costs even if it means ceasing the production of helpful bus maps’ bandwagon (TfL being the founding member of course) so I was delighted to see a full set of METRO’s seven area maps were produced as recently as May 2018. Another Five Stars awarded.

Not only that, but I picked up a full set of all seven from Pontefract bus station – the first bus station I visited on Friday afternoon. I spotted maps in all the other Travel Centres but sadly not a full set. It really should be the default – to always offer a full set with extra supplies of the local area.

Tickets. There’s a Five Star comprehensive range of tickets available across West Yorkshire not only from METRO (including travel on buses and trains; buses only; trains only); peak and off peak versions and all available from Travel Centres and smart new smartcard machines in bus stations including the issue of a first card for just £2 as well as top ups.

There are some great fare offers too. I used the METRO Weekender which for just £8.20 gives unlimited bus travel from 6pm on Friday and all over the weekend to midnight on Sunday. A real bargain.

Arriva, First Bus and Transdev Blazefield also sell their own ranges of operator specific tickets at very reasonable prices. Some say this makes it all too complicated but I say it gives passengers a choice. Indeed on Friday I opted to buy one of Arriva’s m-Tickets as I knew I’d only be using their buses that day.

One thing I would like to see is greater clarity on what services tickets can be used particularly those crossing boundaries into neighbouring counties. It’s clear drivers don’t really know either so I happily used my METRO weekender into and from Skipton and Bolton Abbey (both in North Yorkshire) on Saturday.

A few suggestions.

Branding. It’s a bit of a mess. As usual with PTEs, METRO seem very protective of their brand ‘boring’ for bus timetables. For years they were produced to a standard design that featured strictly black and white colouring only, so it was nice to see some flashes of colour on a display in Leeds bus station but it’s still far from inspiring.

But if Transdev Blazefield can produce and distribute colourful attractively branded timetable leaflets for each of their high profile branded bus routes, why can’t Arriva do the same for their MAX and Frequenta brands (as well as the high profile Sapphire branded 110 between Wakefield and Leeds). Similarly First Bus are missing out on getting the best out of their high profile branded routes including the X84 Leeds-Skipton, the new X6 Leeds-Bradford and X63 Bradford-Huddersfield.

As it is there seems to be much welcome investment in attractively branded buses (including new colour coded groupings from First Bus for its Leeds city routes based on a green livery as a nod to the former Leeds City Transport) but there’s no follow through to other ‘touch points’ including the all important printed bus timetables as well as online. It’s all very well having nice branded buses, but that’s only part of the story.

Even more disappointing, there are far too many examples of branded buses on the wrong routes. Far too many.

Arriva in particular needs to up its game on bus allocation and both they and First Bus need to take a leaf out of Transdev Blazefield’s book and really invest in getting branding right and follow it through to leaflets and their distribution (I even spotted a CITYZAP leaflet in Pontefract and Castleford bus stations).

It was good to see Transdev Blazefield’s recent branded departure stands in Leeds bus station have now been copied by First Bus. More please.

Network. The West Yorkshire route network is certainly comprehensive; almost too much so. I sampled a range of routes during my visit including long inter-urban, short city/town routes and circuitous rambling routes which seemed to go on for ever; the ultimate destination always seemingly another round-the-houses away. A cursory look at the bus maps for Leeds, for example, shows just how complex the network is.

It’s laudable to give passengers many travel options and have buses diverting off their trajectory to serve small communities, but it’s important to keep a balance so as not to put off longer distance travellers with too many bifurcations. I’m not convinced that balance is right in parts of West Yorkshire.

I’m also sure there’s scope to introduce some speeding up with more direct routes or brand new routes.

First Bus now have a very limited stop X6 running between Leeds and Bradford taking advantage of some of the area’s urban ‘motorway’ type roads. There’s the infamous CITYZAP of course and Transdev Blazefield have recently speeded up their Aireline 60 towards Keighley by using the faster A650. Arriva have a couple of fast peak journeys from Heckmondwike to Leeds but it’s a drop in the ocean of what the potential could be. Much more of these please.

I’m also convinced there’s a place for a simplified map showing only the high profile inter-urban and branded bus routes run by the three operators across West Yorkshire. This really would show the great travel opportunities available in addition to the well used rail network and I’m sure would generate travel for the bus companies.

Frequency. Some evening frequencies are very poor relative to daytimes. It’s commendable to have 10 minute frequencies to encourage daytime passengers to ‘turn up and go’ but it’s a real turn off to switch to half hourly in the evenings; and in some cases quite early evening too. Routes 36 and 110; yes I’m looking at you but only as just two high profile examples!

You only need a breakdown or untoward problem which inevitably leads to the following bus getting delayed coping with a double load and passengers can face up to a miserable hour waiting. They’ll soon be lost as customers in the daytime too after such an experience.

Eager ‘36’ passengers waiting for almost an hour in Leeds early on Saturday evening ….
…due to a gap in service caused by a pheasant flying into the windscreen – these things happen.

That’s it for now; but more Yorkshire travels are still ahead.

Roger French 15th October 2018

Turnaround Cornwall

30th September 2018

The turnaround of fortunes for First Bus in Cornwall is quite remarkable. You can’t fail to be impressed by the huge investment in new vehicles, eye catching colourful branded liveries, smartened up bus stops, shelters and bus station waiting rooms and an attractive book packed full of timetables of lovely bus routes to sample, maps to devour and tickets to buy.

The smart Tinner livery on rebranded routes between Truro and Penzance/St Ives
One of three network maps covering Cornwall in the excellent Local Bus Guide.

It wasn’t that many years ago most bus industry observers (including me) had written off First in the county as bus routes were culled, second hand aged vehicles portraying a very down at heel image the norm, while competitor Western Greyhound had rapidly expanded at First’s expense running routes from Penzance to Plymouth.

There’s still a reminder or two on the streets of Cornwall of how things used to be.

The years of remote regional management based in Bristol did nothing but hasten First’s decline as the locally based nimble footed Western Greyhound grew relentlessly.

The sad demise of Western Greyhound and more recently First ceding its Plymouth based operations to Stagecoach have seen both Go-Ahead owned Plymouth Citybus and Stagecoach expand into east Cornwall.

A former Metrobus Mercedes now operated by ‘Citybus’ heading for Bude.

Now it’s fascinating to see those operators using second hand buses, in some cases with confusing branding (Go Cornwall v Citybus v BlueFlash), while it is First Bus under a reinvigorated locally based management which undeniably has the best image as it rebuilds its reputation in Cornwall.

You only have to spend an hour or so in Truro, as I did over the weekend, and watch new bus after new bus, including many double deckers with decent loads entering and leaving the bus station, to realise the scale of this massive turnaround.

The network of routes serving Falmouth and its university were first to be rebranded

I’d like to think all this wasn’t solely in response to Cornwall Council being giving franchising powers with grand plans to link buses into the planned half hourly train service between Plymouth and Penzance as a grand whizzo modal integrated package and this is First at their innovative commercial best, taking the initiative to grow local markets and working with their partners at GWR.

Scratch beneath the shiny new surface and there’s plenty still to be done, like getting the basics right as well as better timetable coordination on common corridors (west out of Truro for example – two routes both leaving at 05).

I just hope the revenue growth can keep up with ever demanding margin expectations in Aberdeen. In the meantime bus passengers in Cornwall haven’t had it so good for a very long time.

Nice branding for the Tinner; shame it’s on the wrong route.
This attractive livery belies a 16 year old bus ….
…. just a shame so little respect for the Company name and branding!

The £13 one day bus ticket across Cornwall is well promoted yet not a mention anywhere of the far better value one day bus AND train ticket across Cornwall costing … err, £13. So much for modal integration.
The nicely refurbished Truro Bus Station Travel Shop (minus its manned counter); just a shame elderly passengers can’t get up from the very low chairs and ….
… you can’t access the excellent timetable book when the Shop is closed on Sundays

Why do bus companies have a blind spot when it comes to removing out of date notices?

Roger French Sunday 30th September 2018

Spiralling decline in London

Friday 28th September 2018

TfL’s much leaked cuts to central London’s bus routes were officially published today as a six week public consultation is launched.

As expected the plans involve removing parts of or whole bus routes along busy roads also served by other routes on the grounds the overall capacity supplied by the combined route frequencies is well able to cope with the falling demand. The now often quoted sop for passengers facing a consequential change of bus for their journey is: ‘the Hopper fare will mean no increase in fares paid’.

But that’s not much consolation for passengers facing a more inconvenient journey involving changes in buses. There’s no question such a worsened journey proposition should mean paying higher fares. You can’t help thinking the Hopper fare has turned into a front for cutting service levels.

A through journey is far more convenient than having to change buses with all the uncertainties and disruption this brings, especially passengers encumbered with shopping or buggies or with accessibility issues. It makes travel seem more than twice the effort, when a change is involved.

Knowing these changes were coming I took the opportunity a week or so ago to carry out some impromptu surveys on those sections of route facing withdrawal. My observations reaffirm TfL’s stance there’s more than adequate capacity to cater for existing demand; and frankly the further downturn in passengers travelling which can be expected as a consequence of these planned cuts. Whenever you disrupt journeys you can expect to lose passengers.

Take route 171 from Catford for example, being cut back from it’s current northern terminus at Holborn. TfL are quite right, all the buses I saw north of the planned new northern terminus at Elephant and Castle had only half a dozen to a dozen passengers on board who could easily be accommodated on the abundance of empty seats on other bus routes between these points.

Similarly I had a ride on a morning peak hour route 4 from north London to its southern terminus at Waterloo. Whereas we were near enough full through Islington, after St Pauls (where it’s planned to divert the route to Blackfriars to replace a withdrawn section of another route, the 388), passenger numbers had thinned to around a dozen towards Aldwych and Waterloo picking up only a handful of new passengers who could easily be accommodated on alternative routes.

The same was true on a 242 south of Shoreditch (being diverted to Aldgate to replace the 67) with very few passengers travelling as far as the current terminus at St Pauls. Meanwhile the 67 will be cut back some distance to only travel south from Wood Green as far as Dalston Junction leaving the 149 and 242 to cope onward to Shoreditch; and cope they will from my observations.

BUT; (block capital letters deliberate) this phenomenon of decreasing passenger numbers towards a bus route’s final destination is not exactly surprising; more passengers inevitably get off than get on with the range of destination options diminishing as the route comes to an end. The exception being when a major attraction (shopping centre; station; school etc) is located at the terminus.

On TfL’s logic the 171 could soon be cut back from Elephant and Castle further south to Camberwell Green and save a few more buses and drivers and then why not cut it back further again to New Cross, and so on, with passengers hopping along from bus to bus on other routes instead of enjoying through journeys.

For years London was held as the pinnacle of best practice bus operation. Its growing passenger numbers were lauded by regulation protagonists who deliberately chose to ignore its booming public subsidy grant. Now that grant has been taken away the harsh realities of running buses are hitting the Capital as they have impacted other large conurbations for a couple of decades.

Route RV1, for example, which links parts of the South Bank not directly served by other bus routes on its meandering route from Covent Garden to the Tower is being withdrawn completely after recent frequency reductions. It’s just the sort of route that’s a luxury in a generously publicly funded regime but never a commercial proposition. So it’s no surprise it’s being withdrawn. I suspect there’ll be other London routes of a similar ilk facing the chop in the future.

Anyone want a spare fleet of hydrogen buses?

Interestingly TfL’s consultation papers include a clear localised bus map (TfL – bus map – yes, I know strange isn’t it?!) showing existing and planned changes so the impact can be readily seen in each affected area; but for the RV1 you have to consult two separate maps (one existing; the other proposed) making it harder to work out where the unserved roads will be.

RV1 – now you see it; now you don’t.

TfL make much of the significant downturn in bus passengers within central and inner London and how these consequential bus cuts are positive because (a) they better match supply with demand and (b) it enables a redeployment of resources to outer London where there’ll be ‘improved and new routes’. Err, except there don’t seem to be any such improvement plans in this package. The one ‘new route’ (the 311) is simply a renumbering of the western end of the 11 and a replacement for two other withdrawn sections of routes (19 and 22). So not exactly a new route.

Extract from TfL’s consultation paper

There’s also no evidence of steps TfL intend to take to stem the worrying loss of passengers throughout London. TfL’s map highlights the dramatic loss of passengers particularly in excess of 10% over the last three years in central and inner London.

The consultation states TfL ‘are looking to prioritise buses on our roads’ in Central London but it’s a great shame this wasn’t done some years ago which might have meant these cuts now planned for Spring 2019 would not have been needed.

I was on a southbound 29 only on Wednesday and it took around fifteen minutes to crawl through the gridlock at the bottom of Gower Street. Most passengers simply abandoned the bus as it was easily possible to walk to the terminus at Trafalgar Square in that time.

Rather than introducing bus priority, TfL’s answer seems to be to cut routes back to avoid such bottlenecks by in the case of the 29 turning at, say, Warren Street (as is planned for the 134). And who knows maybe even Camden Town, or dare I say Mornington Crescent! Game over!

The upshot of this is the vicious spiral of decline will continue; especially as TfL part justify some of these cuts saying less buses will mean less congestion. Who’d have thought that would be a justification for bus cuts.

Extract from the consultation part justifying bus cuts

Finally a small oddity in the consultation published this morning. It contained an error stating route 11 was being withdrawn between Liverpool Street and Victoria.

Conspiracy theorists might wonder whether this was in fact the originally planned fate of this iconic route; but in the event by this afternoon the wording had been hastily corrected and the 11 lives on (well at least for now) and albeit in a much truncated form with the route west of Victoria becoming the new 311.

The consultation can be found here: https://consultations.tfl.gov.uk/buses/central-london/

It closes on Friday 9th November.

Roger French 28th September 2018

Which Ipswich bus station?

Tuesday 25th September 2018

There aren’t many towns of Ipswich’s size (circa 150,000 population) with two bus stations. Many similar sized towns don’t even stretch to having one bus station these days let alone two.

For example down the road and over the Suffolk/Essex border, Colchester rather cheekily calls its somewhat unexciting on-street bus stops in Osborne Street and Stanwell Street a ‘Bus Station’, although to be fair it does include a rather nice enclosed waiting room on the corner between the two streets and there are screens depicting next departures.

Back in Ipswich the former municipal bus station for local ‘town’ bus routes (Tower Ramparts) is to the north of the central retail area while the old Eastern Counties bus station for ‘county ‘ routes (the Old Cattle Market) is to the south. It takes around five minutes to walk between the two.

Screen Shot 2018-09-25 at 18.36.59

Tower Ramparts bus station for town routes
Old Cattle Market bus station for ‘county’ routes

Both bus stations were completely refurbished by Suffolk County Council five years ago and impressively sport clear electronic displays at each stop and a poster listing departure points by service (assuming you know your service numbers). There are seats and covered waiting areas. They’re both clean and seem well looked after.

Both bus stations also have a Travel Shop. Tower Ramparts unsurprisingly looked after by Ipswich Buses with a little bit of a foreboding entrance while at the old Cattle Market there’s a snazzy brand new smokey glass kiosk manned by First Bus.

But, here’s the thing: time moves on and things change. While Tower Ramparts is still dominated by Ipswich Buses’ departures, some First Bus operated bus routes also now depart from there while over at Old Cattle Market you’ll find some ‘County’ routes now operated by Ipswich Buses as well as a myriad of other small operators running bus routes in addition to First Bus.

I’m sure you can guess what’s coming next…. I found impressive displays of timetable leaflets available in both Travel Shops but only Ipswich Buses operated bus route timetables were available in Tower Ramparts and only First Bus operated bus route timetables were available in Old Cattle Market.

Tower Ramparts Travel Shop displays Ipswich Buses timetables but not First Bus
Old Cattle Market Travel Shop displays First Bus timetables but not Ipswich Buses

So if you want a timetable for the Ipswich Buses run 93/94 routes to Colchester for example, which I did, or the 92 to Manningtree or the 97 to Shotley which, as former First Bus routes, depart from the Old Cattle Market, they’re only available in the Ipswich Buses Travel Shop in the Tower Ramparts Bus Station (which these routes don’t serve).

On the other hand First Bus town route 60/61 to the local areas of Gainsborough and Greenwich in Ipswich depart from Tower Ramparts but timetables are only available in Old Cattle Market. Now here there’s a bit of competition going on as Ipswich Buses routes have traditionally long served these areas, and still do, which might make Ipswich Buses reluctant to cooperate with timetable provision.

But, it is all very confusing. And not really a sensible way to grow the market for bus travel. Come on Ipswich Buses and First Bus – why not offer copious comprehensive information at both bus stations for everyone’s benefit?

It was too much to expect to find printed timetables for routes run by other bus companies besides Ipswich Buses and First Bus, and which presumably are funded by Suffolk County Council, from either bus station. That really would be making bus travel attractive.

Roger French              25th September 2018

Out in the Outer Hebrides

Saturday 22nd September 2018

I’ve been travelling by bus around the Outer Hebrides over the last few days. What an amazing bus adventure it’s been. Scenery to die for. Never mind Coastliner 840 across the North York Moors being voted Britain’s most scenic bus route – come up to the Isle of Lewis and Harris for some seriously stunning bus scenery. And as I found on Shetland, considering the extremely low population density throughout the islands, the bus network is pretty impressive. Many English and Welsh councils could learn a thing or two.

I last visited the Outer Hebrides as recently as May when I’d planned to travel from Castlebay in the extreme south, on the island of Barra, through to Stornoway in the north, on Lewis. The journey involves five connecting buses crossing four causeways and using two ferries taking around nine hours to complete, all in a day.

However I came a cropper just under half way as I’d failed to check the tide times for the ferry between North Uist and Harris. On around hundred days a year the ferry has to operate to an amended schedule because of low tides making it impossible to make connections for the through journey in one day. I’d inadvertently chosen one of those days and ended up spending the night stranded in Lochmaddy on North Uist (luckily finding a bed in the only hotel there) before catching the morning ferry across to Skye but vowing to return and make another attempt at the journey later in the year.

This time I decided to travel southbound and carefully checked not only the bus, ferry and tide times but also the variable times for the flight back to Glasgow from Barra airport where uniquely its beach runway means flight schedules are also dependent on tide times.

All seemed good for the third week in September and as I’d also received a number of recommendations for other interesting bus journeys on Lewis and Harris I decided to make a four day leisurely trip and soak up the true Outer Hebridean Western Isles experience.

As on Shetland there are a number of bus (and coach) operators involved in bus service provision and timetables are well planned by the Council to provide excellent connections to small isolated communities off the main roads from the ‘spine’ routes. The timetables are all online and while appearing fiendish at first due to all the connection options and different day/schoolday/seasonal variations, after a while you get the hang of them and appreciate the detail they contain.

What I missed most of all is a network map – it would have been so helpful to plan out each day’s trips. The rudimentary printed timetable booklets available in Stornoway have a basic map on the cover which would have been a godsend if available on line. Even more taxing is that place names are in English on the timetables but in Gaelic on OS maps.

All the bus routes are numbered with a W prefix presumably to denote the Western Isles.

Unlike Shetland there’s no integrated ticket or day rover ticket so it worked out quite expensive to make a number of journeys each day even though the fares obviously must be subsidised. The Travel Scotland smartcard seemed to be available but there was no information about this.

Stornoway is by far the largest town; indeed the only town, with a population of around 8,000. It has a five stance bus station and impressively a Travel Shop open six full days a week with a very friendly and helpful lady. There’s a waiting area inside too, and toilets ‘please pay 30p at the counter’.

Timetables are displayed in the Travel Centre window and there’s an electronic display showing scheduled departures but nothing on four of the five bus stops. There seems to be an aversion to using timetable cases all over the Outer Hebrides which is a great shame yet commendably bus stop plates show neatly placed route numbers even in the middle of nowhere. Bus shelters are very common but all are inevitably weather beaten and many are defaced with poster remains. They don’t look inviting at all.

After catching the lunchtime W5 for the short 15 minute journey from Stornoway airport to the town centre (only £1.20) my first afternoon jaunt was the two hour circuit on circular route W2 to the western coast. Buses operate both ways round about 4-6 times each direction with a couple of evening journeys on half the circuit so not bad for the small communities.

There are two connecting services (W3 and W4) on some of the journeys. I sampled the W3 the following morning to the tiny community of Bosta on the west coast island of Bernera across the ‘Atlantic bridge’.

What an incredible remote bus terminus, and a bonus of a fascinating reclaimed Iron Age house close to the beach which had been discovered during bad storms in 1992. We’d picked up Elizabeth, the guide for the house, on the journey up to Bosta (our only passenger on the journey). She’s a real gem; giving me a half hour’s personalised commentary on how the house inhabitants would have lived in the Iron Age.

Evelyn the W3 bus driver was also a star and having pre-booked my return journey at 1215 from Bosta the previous day she duly came back just over an hour after dropping me and Elizabeth off and took just me back (stopping for photo opportunities along the way) to the connection with the W2 (meeting buses running in both directions) enabling me to return to Stornoway.

My next trip was heading south for a half an hour’s ride on the island’s main north-south spine route W10 as far as the road to Orinsay where it connects with a W9 serving small communities towards the east coast.

Four of us made the connection with one, the driver’s mum, travelling all the way almost to Orinsay. It turned out the bus driver had moved up from Crawley where he’d worked for Metrobus and had considered a transfer to Brighton & Hove. I don’t blame him for opting for driving around Lewis instead of Lewes.

On the return journey (another one that needed pre-booking the previous day) I had to swap buses at a bit of an interchange point in the middle of nowhere so the right driver did the right school run and we duly picked up half a dozen primary school children dropping them off safely at the gate of their homes.

The driver told them I was a bus inspector from London who’d come to see how well they behaved on the bus (I played the part with gusto) and we had an uncharacteristically quiet journey for a school run! Another connection back at the main road on to a northbound W10 and it was back into Stornoway again.

Through return tickets are available for these connecting journeys and the next morning I was able to buy a single ticket to cover the full journey south on route W10 to Leverburgh and even break my journey two thirds of the way down at Tarbert.

I did this to try out the recommendation of taking the Friday only late morning trip to Hushinish and back on the W11. What a fantastic bus ride to this remote west coast beauty spot. Truly stunning scenery; lots of twists and turns on what is about a ten mile long no through road alongside mountains and lochs. And just me on board paying £3.20 return.

Bizarrely the road passes through the grounds of Amhuinsuidhe castle which is privately owned although the owner apparently lives in Switzerland. Another interesting sight off the coast is the island of Taransay where the BBC1 series Castaway 2000 was filmed that year and begat all the other reality TV programmes that followed, and launched Ben Fogle’s career. We even picked up a passenger for part of the journey back, but advisedly left another waiting in the bus shelter …

Tarbert is a bit of a node for buses and also has a well stocked Visitor Information Centre displaying timetables in the window, an area for buses (and their drivers) to congregate and a timetable case devoid of timetables bus shelter.

After lunch in Tarbert I caught the early afternoon school bus (schools finish early on Fridays necessitating different timetables – careful planning is needed) W12 to the east coast spot of Rhenigidale.

Another gorgeously stunning journey and only £3.80 return. We carried just four children home but picked up a passenger on the return journey who was connecting for the W10 northbound back to Stornoway.

Whereas I returned to Tarbert and used the rest of my through ticket back on the southbound W10 hugging the west coast with its beautiful sandy bays down to Leverburgh Pier and that tidal ferry to North Uist. Naturally there’s a handy connection to the ferry which takes precisely an hour to cross. It actually docks at the extreme south of the small island of Berneray.

It always impresses me how quickly Caledonian MacBrayne ferries turnaround getting vehicles on and off in just ten minutes.

It’s also impressive to see the bus connect at Leverburgh for northbound passengers ….

…. and for me heading south, within a couple of minutes of getting off the ferry, the bus arrived to take me for the short ride to my overnight stop at Lochmaddy.

That was after a quick bus change on route to ‘right end’ buses and drivers with their respective homes for the night.

My fourth and final day caught the W16/W17 spine route south from Lochmaddy on North Uist over the causeway to Benbecula another causeway to South Uist and one more causeway to the tiny island of Eriskay for the ferry to Barra.

It’s almost a two and a half hour bus ride and it has to be said the scenery is nowhere near as stunning as on Lewis and Harris, but plenty still to see including a bus change in Benbecula which happens on every journey (one bus company runs the southern bit and another the northern end).

The nail biting part was whether we’d run out of seats as when I boarded at Lochmaddy the sixteen seater was already well loaded with luggage as well as passengers.

These minibuses aren’t designed for holidaymakers with luggage and as we got more and more full with just one seat spare, luggage ended up on laps and blocking the gangway and doorway.

We made it in good time to Eriskay slipway giving me time to note another timetable-less bus stop but then finding a set of timetables posted behind the door in the ferry waiting room – not an obvious place to look when you come off the ferry!

A fairly swift 40 minute ferry crossing across to Barra with the added bonus of dolphins swimming alongside us and a shared taxi ride for the short journey to the nearby airport brought my Hebridean adventure to an end. Although the beach take off with Loganair is a fitting finale.

Finally if you’re inspired to also make the trip to these beautiful islands a few words of advice.

Allow contingency time for the flights to Barra or Stornoway. They’re very weather dependent and prone to delays. I allowed nearly three hours on my return flights to connect at Glasgow airport (where I’m writing this now) just to be on the safe side.

Check and recheck ferry times. Especially those affected by tides!

Get to bus stops early particularly for inbound connecting routes from the outlying areas. One bus ran 15 minutes early!

Don’t expect a bus ticket on every journey – one driver hadn’t even connected up his electronic ticket machine!

If you’re limited for time it’s better to explore more of Lewis and Harris than the southern islands (scenically speaking).

And finally finally a plea to the Council: please please produce a network bus map and introduce a day ticket available on all routes.

So that’s it, my flight down to Gatwick and home awaits and I’ll be back next Spring to complete those routes yet to be ridden.

Roger French 22 September 2018

Gliding on Glider

Ever wondered what around £100 million will buy in the way of Bus Rapid Transit? I popped over to Belfast today to find out.

The idea of creating a metro style cross city transit route has been discussed in the City for some years and as always with projects of this kind, (like in Bristol), it’s way behind the original hoped for introduction. But on Monday last week it finally glided into action.

It’s very impressive to see; there’s no doubt about that. It looks exactly like the vision those pioneers at First Bus envisaged when introducing ftr back in 2006 – a tram-like-driver-isolated-in-the-cab vehicle with bespoke tram-like stops and lashings of bus priority measures.

The downfall for ftr was the onboard self-service ticket machine which was never going to work, as well as introducing those first vehicles on a completely unsuitable route in York. Further trials in Leeds and Swansea never worked either because of the unacceptably high cost of employing conductors.

Translink operated Glider has overcome that problem by using some of the £100 million to install easy to use ticket machines (including contactless cards accepted) at all 110 or so bus stops along the 15 mile Glider corridor and implementing a strictly buy before you board policy policed by two-person ticket checkers who were out in force when I visited today (costly in itself but a good deterrent).

There’s also a smartcard system and good value day tickets. I found it quick and easy to buy my ticket.

The high profile bus stops along the route are all impressively fitted out with seats/perches and information including real time.

There’s an abundance of bus lanes all along the route (operational 7am to 7pm), sometimes only in a city bound direction, but even in the off peak when I travelled we gained time by passing other traffic queuing at traffic lights.

The 46 seat (yes, only 46 but lots of standing!) Van Hool hybrid articulated buses look slick and are painted in a smart purple (similar to ftr). They give a very smooth quiet ride. The Glider brand and livery as well as the interior decor are however very much understated but in some ways that gives it a bit of class.

As befits a publicly owned undertaking there’s no promotion or marketing to be seen; you wouldn’t know the key points served by the route (quite a few), frequency (high), price (good value) or added benefits (Wi-fi + usb) from seeing the buses.

I picked up three different leaflets about the service. Only one had a timetable and also had a route diagram, one of the other two also showed the route and details of the smartcard while the third had general information. All a bit confusing. The timetable leaflet was available at the city centre Visit Belfast shop and Metro kiosk but not the main city Europa bus and coach station.

The two other leaflets (but not the timetable) were on display at the very impressive waiting area building at the eastern terminus of route G1 – the Dundonald Park & Ride – now called Park & Glide.

No leaflets were available on board the buses or at bus stops.

Buses had four screens showing next stop and the two following with clear audio announcements except both times I ventured over to West Belfast the system gave up a few stops past the city centre. Presumably some technical teething problems.

Other teething problems were impacting the cross city G1’s timekeeping big time. Buses are timetabled to run every 7-8 minutes with an end to end journey time of an hour. It was taking longer than that leading to inevitable gaps in service, bus bunching and some over crowding.

A service controller was kept busy at the central Wellington Place bus stop moving passengers from one delayed bus to another and there looked to be quite a bit of light running going on. It didn’t seem the service was being controlled remotely using GPS positioning and radio contact with drivers which surprised me.

I’m sure these initial timekeeping problems can be overcome with a quick fix timetable review but it’s unfortunate that in the meantime goodwill during the honeymoon period is being lost as adverse comments build up on social media (#gliderbelfast refers).

The much shorter route G2 shuttle service running ever 10 minutes between the City Centre and the Titanic Quarter was keeping time much better and proving very busy with a steady flow of visitors to this popular tourist attraction.

The scheme promotors have spent quite a bit of the marketing budget on high profile Glider branding around the city centre and you can’t fail to notice the name.

One interesting feature onboard are the three doors being push button operated by passengers once released by drivers which will keep warmth in the vehicle in the winter.

The G1 cross city route is very significant in linking the communities of East and West Belfast (Secretary of State Karen Bradley please note!). I was intrigued to see if other passengers would join me in making the cross city journey on my travels and interestingly on one trip a couple did travel from the heart of East Belfast right into the Falls Road area in the west.

Previously both sides of the city had separate routes – the 4 to the east and the 10 to the west. It’ll be fascinating to see if more cross city, cross culture and cross community travel develops as Glider becomes established.

The desire is to introduce more Glider routes if this initial foray is a success and more significantly if future funds allow especially as a sizeable chunk of the money for this first route came from the EU as part of the Regional Development Fund.

Another interesting and unique aspect is the competition buses and now Glider face from the well established Black Cab scheme in West Belfast and especially along the Falls Road where ride sharing has been in place for many years and was much in evidence today.

It’s a fascinating project which, aside from the initial timekeeping teething problems, has been well executed and just shows what you can do with around £100 million. I wish it well.

Roger French 11th September 2018